Shepard Alonzo Mount

by Deborah J. Johnson

 



 

Despite his hard work, Shepard's focused much of his affections on his children. He especially cherished his only daughter Tutie. In 1850 he painted a portrait of her titled Rose of Sharon. His favorite landscape elements -- lush summer scenery, a body of water, a cabin with wisps of chimney smoke and a mountainous backdrop -- provided a picturesque setting for the lovely young girl In one hand Tutie holds a rose of sharon blossom whose milky-pink color complements the bloom of her complexion. As well, the colors of the flowers gathered in her apron are echoed in the colors of her dress.

Tutie appears again in Girl with Bird's Nest (The Bird's Lament), completed in 1854. This portrait includes trompe l'oeil touches in the extension of branches and leaves over a painted illusionistic "frame." The nest and the two eggs nestled within it are painted with great care and detail. Mount probably knew of the symbolic meaning of the nest, in which the eggs serve as a metaphor for the course of life. He reinforced this idea by juxtaposing the nest with the river -- another "voyage-of-life" symbol. Silhouetted against the mountain range is a church steeple, a sign of spirituality as well as a physical symbol of man's link with God. In the background to the right of Tutie, Mount includes a smoking volcano, which signifies the formation of the earth as it existed at the beginning of time, before the existence of man. In this context, the active volcano stands for birth and renewal. [3]

From Mount's pictures of Tutie, and from the poetry he composed about her, it is apparent that she was not only his favorite model, but also a personal symbol of all that was lovely, innocent and spiritually rewarding in life.

On August 8, 1861, Tutie, age nineteen, married Neal Joseph Becar, a member of the prominent Brooklyn and Smithtown Long Island family; four months later, the young bride died of consumption. Shepard deeply mourned the loss of his beloved daughter, feeling acutely helpless, since "her earthly father could not prevent her going hurriedly down the stream of life to its ending." [4] His despair deeply affected his desire to paint. Alden J. Spooner, Mount's close friend, noticed a marked change in Shepard: "on the death of [Tutie] he seemed for a time to have no motive for effort." [5]

Shepard's anguish over Tutie's death compounded in 1863. His eldest son, William Shepard, had been living in Mississippi when the South declared war on the northern states. Against his will, William Shepard was drafted into the Confederate army, and later captured and imprisoned when he was thought to be a spy. Shepard was unable to obtain information concerning his son's whereabouts or welfare.

William Shepard's perilous situation, coupled with the loss of Tutie, whom Shepard still mourned, provided the impetus for one of the artist's rare floral still-lifes, Rose of Sharon: ''Remember Me." Painted in 1863, this still life is a family portrait in metaphor. In a vase inscribed "Remember Me," denotes an enduring universal theme of life's transience. The flowers are temporary; they will bloom and die. The largest rose of sharon bloom in the vase is old, with time-worn petals and a wearily drooping pistil; this flower represents the artist himself. Shielded behind the large white flower are two buds, one beginning to unfurl and the other still contained in its protective casing; these signify the artist's younger sons, Joshua and Bobby, who were eighteen and ten in 1863. The red flower in the vase is separated from the others, threatened by leaves resembling grasping fingers; this bloom symbolizes William Shepard and his uncertain fate in the grip of the Civil War. A bud ripped from its stem and separated from the source of nourishment represents the departed Tutie. Between the bud and the stem is a small half shell with a thin veil of water falling from its rim, signifying both a cup of sorrow and a vale of tears. Above the still life, a brilliant shooting star, representing Tutie's soul, rises toward the heavens. The picture is an overtly autobiographical work in which growth and decay similes convey the artist's emotional torments and fears. [6]

In February 1864 Mount encountered fellow artist, Frank Bicknell Carpenter, who was leaving New York City to paint a portrait of President Lincoln in the nation's capital. Mount related to him the story of his son's imprisonment and asked Carpenter if he would call William Shepard's plight to the attention of the president. He provided a full statement of his son's case, and William Cullen Bryant, a friend of Mount's and editor of the New York Evening Post, forwarded a letter endorsing his plea. Carpenter presented the letters to Lincoln and testified for Mount's sincerity and patriotism; taking Bryant's letter, Lincoln wrote on the reverse an order for William Shepard's release. [7]

With his family now secure, Shepard's attentions returned to painting. Aside from periodic trips to New York City and an excursion to Connecticut in 1865, he remained on Long Island, painting for the Jones family of Cold Springs Harbor and for other patrons. He also began to concentrate again on landscape painting.

On September 12, 1868, Shepard became ill with cholera, and died in Stony Brook six days later, at age 64. William received and responded to letters of condolence form his brother's friends and past patrons, and in November, traveled to New York City to arrange the last showing of his brother's work at the National Academy of Design's winter exhibition. Shortly after his return, William was stricken with pneumonia and died on November 18, 1868, at the home of his brother Robert.

Shepard knew his life work constituted no great force in the annals of American art. This must have been especially apparent in light of the contributions made by several of his contemporaries, including his brother William. Nevertheless, Shepard was a thoroughly competent artist and was recognized as such by his peers. He is in many ways representative of a substantial group of lesser-known nineteenth-century artists whose lifelong commitment to their profession resulted only in minor distinction after their deaths, yet whose careers are nevertheless as illustrative of the history, economics and preferences of nineteenth-century American art as the careers of artists who gained greater fame.

 

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